Paul Greenberg of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is a regular columnist at Townhall.com, which tells you about all you need to know concerning his reliability. These days, anyway. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing back in 1969 (when he said he was guided by the rubric “Is it worth saying?”), later coined the epithet “Slick Willie,” and now devotes his time to chasing unruly kids off his lawn. That's what he was doing when he penned Academe Then and Now, a nostalgic look back at the days when schools were ivory towers of erudition rather than today's whited sepulchers of political correctness.
Greenberg is not the first right-wing commentator to remark on this perceived development, so he embellishes his statement with anecdotes from his personal experience. His history professor at the University of Missouri was a Virginian and a devoted Jeffersonian. However, in those heady days before the oppressively liberal groupthink of today—pause here to shudder delicately—Greenberg's liberal-minded professor dared to assign as reading the less than adulatory tome History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison by Henry Adams. Greenberg was promptly seduced (by the book, of course; in those days professors certainly did not seduce their students).
Henry Adams' beautifully crafted words—his book is not only history but literature—reached across time and turned me into an Adams/Hamilton Federalist, which led to my becoming successively a Henry Clay Whig, then a Lincoln Republican, right through the whole successive conservative chain of ideas in American history to the present day.The present day? Greenberg wanders off at this point to complain further about contemporary academia and discards the thread that links today's great neo-conservative theoreticians in an unbroken chain to Abraham Lincoln himself.
But I can't let it go. Is Greenberg suggesting a continuity of political thought and philosophy from Lincoln, the country's first Republican president, to the era of George W. Bush, the last? That proposition is suspect. The Democratic Party, for example, still embraces Jefferson as an icon for his establishment of the original political organization and his devotion to personal liberties, but today's Democrats are certainly less enamored than Jefferson with the notion of nation of yeoman farmers. The pastoral is passé. As for Republicans, the man who freed the slaves and successfully presided over the bloody reuniting of the states is a rather radical figure to hold up as a conservative ideal. The notion of “less government” and laissez-faire should have translated into a policy of “Wayward sisters, depart in peace” (to borrow Winfield Scott's words). But let's not deny the GOP's claim on the Great Emancipator, even if they have lost his legacy.
Let's instead consider some candidates in Greenberg's great chain of being conservative. What comes after Adams, Hamilton, Clay, and Lincoln? We should probably pass quietly over Andrew Johnson, since he was originally a Democrat before becoming Lincoln's running mate and accidental successor. Ulysses Grant was more fortunate in his military endeavors than in his political career, which was tarnished by multiple scandals. In this sense Grant may well be an iconic member of the GOP presidential pantheon, but a tolerance for high levels of corruption has never been an explicitly Republican trait (wink, wink).
Rutherford Hayes was famously pilloried as “Rutherfraud” for his ascension to the presidency by rigging the vote of the Electoral College in multiple states (including Florida!). Election fraud, however, is not in the mainstream of accepted Republican thought (nudge, nudge).
One can't say much about James A. Garfield, who served barely half a year in office before being succeeded by the hapless Chester A. Arthur (celebrated patron of the civil service, surely not a favorite of contemporary Republicans). Then there's Benjamin Harrison, another minority-vote one-term president who lost the election in the popular vote tallies but squeaked out a win in the Electoral College. It wasn't, however, nearly as scandalous as the Hayes “victory.”
William McKinley was an adventurer who annexed the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. He successfully prosecuted the Spanish-American War, but successful prosecution of wars is not a particularly Republican skill, as shown by the examples of Nixon, Ford, and Bush the Lesser. (Reagan was successful in his mini-war on Grenada and disastrously unsuccessful in his incursion into Lebanon. His successor, the first Bush, was successful in the 1990-91 Gulf War by knowing better than to try to proceed into Baghdad. Later events have already served to elevate the reputation of Bush I at least as far as military engagements are concerned.)
Could Greenberg take his political philosophy from Theodore Roosevelt? One thinks not, especially with TR's emphasis on trust busting and conservation of natural resources. Those planks have long been missing from the GOP platform. Taft? Harding? Coolidge? Hoover? I doubt it.
Then we have Eisenhower, who today would be smeared as a RINO (Republican in Name Only). Remember Ike? He warned us against the influence of the military-industrial complex. A Republican did that! He must have been a bad one, because today's Republican Party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the military-industrial complex (cough [Halliburton!] cough).
Nixon's name is synonymous with sleaze, dishonesty, and corruption. He was the apotheosis in his day of all of the failings of his GOP predecessors, all wrapped up into one ungodly bundle. Nixon appears to be the model emulated by George W. Bush, who lacks Tricky Dick's literacy but fully embraces Nixon's theory of the imperial presidency. I'm sure that Bush hopes his successor will be prepared to emulate Gerald Ford, the happenstance president who assumed office upon Nixon's resignation and then promptly pardoned his predecessor. George W. Bush could use someone like that.
Despite my head-scratching, I still don't know who Greenberg is referring to when he talks about “the successive conservative chain of ideas.” Frankly, conservative thought seems bankrupt, much like the nation. Once upon a time it may have been true that Republicans really favored responsible, thrifty, and nonintrusive government, but the presidencies of Reagan and the two Bushes have put paid to that misconception (“overpaid” is more like it). Our history since World War II shows that the national debt fell steadily under the stewardship of both political parties until it began to soar under Ronald Reagan. While the Clinton administration was a brief return to budgetary responsibility, George W. Bush immediately began to throw it all away even before the excuse of the national emergency of September 11.
So tell us, Paul. What embodies conservative thought today? Did I make a mistake by expecting any of it to be represented by the policies of Republican presidents?